Hurdles in Implementing 3D Technology in Higher Education

It is inevitable that technical issues will arise with any rapidly developing or complex technology, and 3D technologies are both. Furthermore, institutions of higher education are often slow to adopt innovations, particularly innovations in pedagogy.1 This combination of technical and cultural factors made it inevitable that there would be hurdles for the institutions participating in the Campus of the Future project. These hurdles fell into two broad categories: technical and pedagogical.

Technical Difficulties

Technical problems seem to simply be a fact of modern life. Many of us can probably set up a desktop or laptop computer straight out of the box, since these devices have become widely familiar and are manufactured to be relatively easy to use. However, it often takes someone from the IT department to configure a network printer or scanner or other peripheral device, despite their being equally familiar and ostensibly easy to use. The 3D technology provided by HP for this project consisted of comparatively new types of devices that are less familiar, less easy to use, and therefore that much more difficult to set up.

Technical issues can generally be divided into two broad categories: hardware problems and software problems. There is, of course, a common third category: human error. But human error cuts across both hardware and software, so we will maintain these two basic categories.

A hardware problem that some institutions encountered was the need for a particular hardware adaptor. This was especially an issue for the headsets, which required an HDMI-to-DisplayPort adaptor. Institutions that did not happen to have this adaptor had to purchase one. While such adaptors are not expensive, diagnosing this problem and ordering an adaptor slowed some institutions down in getting the headsets set up.

A software problem encountered by some institutions was the need to update software drivers. VR and AR are extremely graphics intensive and generally function best when the graphics drivers are up to date. Some participating institutions found that they needed to update multiple drivers to get the VR/AR headsets to operate, which, although not difficult, is time-consuming and may require rebooting the computer multiple times.

Both hardware and software problems were experienced with 3D scanning as well. On the hardware side, 3D scanning does not work very well on highly reflective objects or surfaces. Many 3D scanners illuminate the object being scanned with lasers; highly reflective surfaces can cause scans to be pixelated or distorted. A simple fix for this problem is a product called 3D Scan Spray, which is simply a spray-on matte finish (which is then easily wiped off). Again, however, while not expensive, diagnosing the problem and purchasing a product slows down the process of making 3D scans.

On the software side, a 3D scan is actually a set of images "stitched" together into a 3D model by software. This process is computationally intensive and requires a powerful computer (see the appendix for descriptions of the computers provided to participating institutions). An older or slower computer, a computer with inadequate RAM, or even an adequate computer that is simultaneously running other software may be unable to process a scanned object. The solution here too is simple: Use a computer configured to support high-end graphics, reboot it before using it to perform a 3D scan, and ensure that the 3D scanning software is the only application running. This is easier said than done, however; surely all of us have had the experience of knowing that we should reboot our computer for one reason or another but decide not to because it would insert a small amount of friction into our workflow.

The Technology Learning Curve

When setting up any technology, configuring the hardware and software to work correctly is of course a necessary prerequisite. But it is only the first step: Next comes the learning curve for figuring out how to use it.

The well-known diffusion of innovations theoretical framework articulates five adopter categories: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards.2 These categories are of course broad generalizations, but individuals and organizations within each category share certain characteristics that make them more or less amenable to adopting a particular innovation. Innovators and early adopters tend to enjoy experimentation and have the resources to expend on doing so. In the context of higher education, this often means faculty members who are comfortable with technology and are willing to devote time to learning to use it.

It behooves new campus technology initiatives to seek out innovator and early adopter faculty, since such individuals are the most likely to be advocates for new technology initiatives and to be opinion leaders among their peers. These faculty members are likely to be able to teach themselves to use the new technology, or at least to require fairly minimal training. It is also likely that staff in the campus IT unit or center for teaching and learning already know who (at least some of) these individuals are, since such faculty members are likely to already have had contact with these campus units.

Students may of course also be innovators and early adopters, and in fact several participating institutions found that some of the most creative uses of 3D technology arose from student projects. This was particularly the case at institutions where students were free to experiment with and even hack the 3D technology, rather than where that equipment was under lock and key. Indeed, at several participating institutions there was so much interest among the students in using this technology that there was simply not enough of it to go around. In campus technology labs where hardware must be reserved, the 3D technology was often reserved well in advance. Furthermore, at some institutions students were interested in working on projects with faculty who were using the 3D technology, but there were not enough projects and not enough available student positions on projects to accommodate the number interested. As a result, many students conceived their own individual or small-group projects to use the available 3D technology.

Not all faculty or students are innovators and early adopters, however. Indeed, most are not: Diffusion of innovations theory shows that the early and late majority are far larger categories. It is of course usually not necessary to have 100% of institutional affiliates using any specific campus technology (except perhaps email and the learning management system). But on the other hand, one does not want to simply preach to the converted: A campus technology initiative should not serve only those who self-select into it. The duration of the Campus of the Future project was only one academic year, however, and therefore not long enough for institutions to dramatically expand their local communities of interest. Consequently, involving a wider set of faculty and students in the use of 3D technology was a challenge for all participating institutions.

One of the most common mechanisms for doing this, and the seemingly most effective, was for the campus units participating in the project to run training sessions. Some of these were offered as workshops open to any and all comers from across campus, like workshops offered by IT units on other technologies or by centers for teaching and learning on pedagogical practices. Some of these were offered as sessions provided to individual courses, at the request of the instructor, or to individual working groups, often at the request of students. At some participating institutions, these training sessions and workshops have proven so popular that the institutions have begun developing curricula for those that they anticipate will see repeat demand. Hamilton College, for example, has developed a curriculum for an introductory workshop on creating virtual objects. FIU has developed curricula for workshops on narrower topics, such as the 3D scanning of found objects on either the DAVID scanner or the Sprout, and the use of the VR headset rig.

Workshops are useful not only for training users on specific hardware and practices, but also for fostering outreach to new users and user groups. FIU, for example, has developed workshops for new users both within and outside of the university: One workshop on using the Unreal Engine to develop VR environments was developed specifically for architecture students at FIU, while another on the Steam games distribution platform was developed specifically for K–12 students in the Miami-Dade County public schools. In both cases, workshop attendees may not know how to use 3D technology, and in fact a K–12 field trip to FIU might be many of these students' first exposure to these technologies.

Every institution has faculty and students who have the motivation to be innovators and early adopters. Even some of these individuals, however, came to their projects not knowing how to use 3D technology. Some faculty and students, having attended a workshop or encountered a peer's use of this technology, were motivated to learn how to use the technology for their own projects. However, such individuals often need a great deal of support as they work through the process of teaching themselves and, in the case of faculty, figuring out how to integrate it into their teaching. Faculty in particular may require "high-touch" service, and as prior EDUCAUSE research has found, faculty predominantly seek technology support from their institution's help desk.3 Students may as well, but students—and particularly undergraduates—are more likely than faculty to have the flexibility to spend their evenings and weekends on a self-directed pursuit. Consistent with that, EDUCAUSE research has found that students predominantly prefer to figure out solutions to their technical problems on their own.4 In both cases, users need support and resources, and they need a way to get questions answered. Faculty are likely to have complex questions, often requiring a face-to-face consultation. Students, particularly undergraduates, are likely to need support at odd hours: late at night, on weekends, and other times when campus offices and facilities are often not staffed. Supporting innovative uses of 3D technology may therefore require changes to the staffing model of the designated campus unit.

The On-Ramp to Sound Pedagogy

Setting up and configuring the hardware and software to work correctly is the first step, and learning to use it is the second step. But both of these, in the context of this project, and in higher education more broadly, are in the service of using technology for teaching and learning.

A faculty member may be an early adopter and need very little assistance in learning to use new technology, or a laggard needing a great deal of hand-holding. In either case, learning how to use new technology is one thing; figuring out whether that technology is appropriate for one's teaching, and if so how to integrate it into one's courses, is something else entirely. Students want their instructors to use more technology in their courses, but that technology must provide clear benefits.5 And of course it is critical that technology be implemented in the service of a pedagogical goal; technology for technology's sake is not only bad teaching practice, but students find it unhelpful as well.

Institutions of higher education are increasingly investing in hiring instructional designers; these individuals often are located in a center for teaching and learning, or some campus unit with a more or less equivalent name and function. The campus IT unit, the library, or other units that support teaching and learning may also play this role. Whatever unit they are associated with on campus, however, instructional designers work with instructors who want to integrate a new technology or practice into their teaching. Instructional designers help faculty think through what the learning objectives of a course are and how best to meet those objectives, as well as how (and, indeed, whether) to use something new, such as 3D technology. Instructional design consulting with staff is generally time-consuming: Sometimes it may be a single meeting, and sometimes it may be a longer-term, ongoing consultation over the course of months or an entire semester. A workshop to train users on a new technology may be considered high touch, but that's nothing compared with providing instructional design support services to a faculty member redesigning a course.

This high-touch service model, however, is both necessary and effective when working with faculty. Faculty who are innovators and early adopters may self-select into new technology initiatives on campus, needing little assistance with the learning curve. Being able to figure out how to use a new technology is not, however, the same as figuring out how to use it in the classroom. Even early adopter faculty, therefore, will benefit from working with instructional designers. Still, faculty are busy people, and some may not have the time to devote to learning to use new technology and figuring out how to integrate it into their teaching, even if they are interested in doing so.

Institutions participating in the Campus of the Future project received their packages of 3D technology around the start of the fall semester of the 2017–18 academic year. Some institutions then found that even some faculty who were interested in using this technology were unwilling to commit to participating until the end of the fall 2017 semester, or even the summer of 2018, given the time commitment required to learn how to use the technology and integrate it into their teaching. Yale's A Year in the Blender report makes it clear that the first year of their institution's use of 3D technology was in large part a learning experience and that the full benefits of this technology on campus will be realized in year two and beyond. It seems likely that this will be true at other institutions as well.

The academic calendar is uneven, with some times of the year busier than others—a fact that campus teaching and learning staff know well. Just as other forms of faculty support must be scheduled with an eye to the academic calendar, so too must support for and outreach regarding 3D technology be scheduled for times of the year when faculty are likely to be at least slightly less busy: summer and between the bursts of activity at the start and the end of the semester or quarter. Obviously, these (relative) downtimes will vary by institution and by department.

It is even more important, perhaps, to provide adequate time for instructors to learn to use and to integrate 3D technology. A full-blown course redesign may take an entire semester—or longer if multiple instructors are involved. Even planning to integrate new technology, short of a full redesign, should commence a full semester in advance. And it's likely that the greater the level of support being offered to faculty, the longer the time required for this process. Again, supporting the campus deployment of 3D technology may therefore require changes to staffing models of the campus IT unit and the center for teaching and learning.


  1. Malcolm Getz, John J. Siegfried, and Kathryn H. Anderson, "Adoption of Innovations in Higher Education," The Quarterly Review of Economics and Finance 37, no. 3 (1997): 605–31; David Matthews, "Fear of Looking Stupid," Inside Higher Ed (July 6, 2017).

  2. Everett M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, 5th ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003).

  3. Jeffrey Pomerantz and D. Christopher Brooks, ECAR Study of Faculty and Information Technology, 2017, research report (Louisville, CO: ECAR, October 13, 2017).

  4. D. Christopher Brooks and Jeffrey Pomerantz, ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2017, research report (Louisville, CO: ECAR, October 18, 2017).

  5. Ibid.